Campervan Gap Year Dream vs Reality: Tips for Full-time or Long-term Campervan Trip

1412 Near Balerma Almeria 005
Our VW Devon Sundowner in Italy

Travelling full-time or for around 12 months in a campervan is becoming increasingly popular, for people of all ages, including among those of us who are too old to have had a gap year. If you are yearning to make that long trip, you might be wondering how you can make this adventure happen, and does reality match up to the dream. In 2009 we were two people in our late 40s early 50s, with jobs that paid the average wage for the UK and yet after a few years of planning and saving we were able to set off and do just that. Here are my tips to help you plan your own dream trip:

  1. First Buy Your Campervan
  2. Saving Money so you can Afford the Trip
  3. What to do About Working When you Come Back
  4. Living for 12 Months
  5. What Clothes do you Need?
  6. Dream vs Reality

1. First Buy Your Campervan

We bought our first campervan in 2005 but felt that this traditional VW was too small for full-time travel. By the time we set off on our adventure we owned a Devon Conversions VW Sundowner; this is a long wheelbase VW and has an on-board toilet but no bathroom. For many people this ‘van would still be much too small for two adults to live in for 12 months but for us it worked perfectly, small and discrete it never felt too big but it had everything we needed.  That said, we pretty much stayed on campsites all the time and we were in the warmer parts of mainland Europe.  Whether you have a huge RV or a micro-camper, my top tip is try out your ‘van for long holidays before you commit to 12 months in it, think about whether you want to wild camp all or most of the time and see how your outfit works for you.

We had owned the Sundowner for two years before we set off travelling, we had been away twice for over three weeks at a time and we were familiar with the ‘van and knew we could live in its confined space. Also after two years the van and the conversion had bedded in and any niggles had been sorted and problems ironed out.

Of course, some people travel full-time in a caravan and you might want to consider that option too.  If your dream trip is to southern Europe for three or four months during the summer then you could save loads of money and just take a tent.

2. Money, Money, Money

Unless you can work on the road – and then that makes it a whole different trip – or have won the lottery, you will need to save some money before you travel.  Before we went travelling we put away what we hoped was enough to live on for twelve months.  In addition to this travelling fund we chose to save enough for a further six months to cover the period when we got back home and were looking for work. Tracking your spending for a year or so before you travel helps you know what these amounts will be for your own lifestyle and will vary depending on what you eat, how often you visit restaurants, how many attractions you take in and whether you use campsites or free camping. On our year away we spent £19,900, you can do it cheaper or you can spend a lot more.

We saved this money by down-sizing our home, doing without stuff and treats, selling everything we didn’t need through Ebay and working hard.  For a few months, during the year before we set off I was juggling three jobs to contribute towards the savings. This was hard going but I had the motivation to get through a short period of stress to meet a clear aim.

Fluctuations with the Euro and Sterling made our planning more tricky and this will still be an issue.  At the last minute in 2008 it became clear that thanks to the collapse of the banks and recession we had to save a few more thousand to cover our living costs as we were getting considerably less for our hard-earned pounds. We were lucky that a chunk of well-paid contract work turned up at just the right time.

We didn’t rent our property while we were away as we wanted to have it there should we need to return home in an emergency but this could be a good option for some people. The downside of our approach was that we also needed the money to keep the flat ticking over.  We stopped any unnecessary bills such as broadband and telephone but continued insurance and minimum payments for utilities; at the time this was an additional £4,300.

A problem we found was that no one was able to offer affordable contents insurance for our empty flat, even though the site we live on is secure.  Instead our son came to stay every couple of months to check the flat, clear the mail and ensure we were complying with the insurance. We were lucky that he was available to do this.

3. Giving up the Nine to Five?

Unless you are made redundant and have a large redundancy pot to spend on your trip you will need to decide what to do about work. We both resigned, leaving our jobs before we set off travelling.  Another friend managed to secure a sabbatical and his job was kept open and this is a fantastic option if you can get it and it is worth asking but it will depend on your employer.

We believed [rightly it turned out] that we were both highly-skilled individuals and that at least one of us would find work that paid enough and was within commuting distance of our home in Salford in six months or less. The risk that we were wrong about this did increase thanks to that recession. You will know your local job market and how easy or difficult this will be but I would guess if you are based in a smaller town this could be hard, unless you have much needed skills or are willing to commute further.

What made a big difference to our circumstances was that having down-sized we were mortgage-free. This meant that we did not need to earn as much as we had in the past and jobs at even minimum wage would have been sufficient for us to keep the wolf from the door. As it turned out we both secured reasonable jobs within three months of getting home.

4. Living for 12 Months

Just to be clear – being away for 12 months is nothing like a holiday.  For me it was much better that a holiday.  Unlike a break from work, you don’t go through one week of unwinding and another of gearing up to go back to work.  Full-time travel gives you an opportunity to be unshackled from being a wage slave, wake up without an alarm and plan your own day and we found this completely relaxing.  All we really had to worry about was where we were going to go next and what we would eat that day.  Life becomes fairly stripped down and simple and this is a liberating and exciting experience.

We deliberately kept our trip flexible.  This meant that we could spend as long as we wanted in different places.  Slovenia hadn’t really been on our list but we were so bowled over with the country we spent a month there and we were delightfully surprised to find that Austria was a great place to spend August.

Being away for 12 months does throw you together as a couple (unless you are travelling alone). We had been married for over 20 years and were confident that we could deal with this but it certainly isn’t something to do with a shaky relationship.  I found that spending every day with my partner meant I got to know him even better and love him even more. We did talk about this and there were times when we did our own thing.  If you need your own space then I would suggest that you discuss this, think through how often you need to get away on your own and how to make it happen.  Sometimes just a half-hour morning walk on your own to get the milk is all you need.

5. What Will You Wear?

Our VW didn’t have unlimited amounts of storage space and we travelled light. The numbers of items of clothing we took are below to get you started in thinking about this practical issue [where there are two numbers the lower one is my super-lightweight travelling partner]. You will notice there is no posh frock in the list and almost all of these items are technical, quick to dry and robust kit from specialist clothing manufacturers.

  • Shorts – 2 pairs each
  • 3/4 length trousers -2 or 3 pairs each
  • Trousers – 3 pairs each
  • Skirt – 1 [just me]
  • T-shirts or shirts – 8 each
  • Jumpers – 2 or 3 each
  • Long-sleeved tops – 1 or 4 (one of us does not feel the cold!)
  • Nightwear – 2 sets
  • Underwear – 6 pairs of Lowe Alpine / Helly Hansen / Rohan pants each
  • Footwear – 2 pairs of sandals, 1 pair walking shoes, 1 pair of outdoor shoes and 1 pair of Crocs each

We also packed cycling shorts, swimming costumes and each had a fleece jacket and cagoule / waterproof jacket.

6. Dream vs Reality

How did our 12 months travelling around Europe match up to the dream? Well I certainly wouldn’t have missed it for the world and here are some things I learnt:

  • Distance didn’t matter – some days we would only travel a few kilometres to a different campsite with a new view.
  • We did lots of things and saw so many new places but not every day was fun-packed – there were days when we just chilled and those were good days too.
  • We stopped worrying if we didn’t get to see every ‘must-see’ sight, it was our trip not a bucket list. We missed out all sorts of things we might have crammed in if we hadn’t been so relaxed, including Rome and Florence.
  • There are still chores – we still had laundry and van cleaning to do but they always happened somewhere different and were always much more fun than at home.
  • Despite being married for over 20 years, the trip gave us space to get to know each other even better and after living in a small space for 12 months our partnership was stronger.
  • Books – we book swapped rather than take e-books. These book swaps were from other campers or from campsite libraries and often resulted in interesting finds and amiable conversations.
  • Mainland Europe is not an homogeneous place, every European country is different with varied ways of doing things, different cultures and new products available in the shops.  We loved this difference then and still do.
  • Be open to meeting new people and new experiences – within your own safety boundaries!
  • We walked and cycled almost every day, keeping fit was easy with so much time.
  • The weather isn’t always sunny. We travelled through France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Italy again, France some more, Spain and Portugal. It is surprisingly cold throughout inland Spain and Portugal from December to March and we mostly hugged the coastline for the milder weather.  Even so for the three months from January to March in Spain and Portugal we had 38 days with some rain, more details here.
  • We didn’t book any campsites and only had a problem in Austria during August in one area because a large campsite was closed for refurbishment and that had a knock-on elsewhere.  Some sites in Spain during the winter were busy but we always got a pitch.  This may be more difficult these days as there are more people travelling.
  • What we missed most was our son and daughter-in-law and paying for them to fly out twice during our year was a great investment. They met us in self-catering cottages we had booked and this made a real difference to our enjoyment of the year away.
  • Other things I missed were Radio 4, crumpets and good tea bags!
  • The time goes very fast!
  • When I returned I didn’t really want to go back to work and our gap year gave me the motivation to start saving for early retirement.

Author: memorialbenchstories

I am interested in the stories behind the people commemorated in memorial benches. I come across these benches in different places and they always make me wonder. Do get in touch if you have any stories.

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